Definitely not the most common place to see a legendary Le Mans-winning Group C car, but it’s precisely these unusual things that I love. The ‘Classic’ division of Mercedes-Benz brought to the 2023 Kilomètre Lancé one of their Sauber C9s, chassis 88-C9-04, which did some demo runs down Engadin Airport’s runway in the hands of Bernd Mayländer.
Sauber-Mercedes C9 Accelerations, Burnouts, Warm Up & Iconic Twin-Turbo V8 Sound on an airstrip!
Some say the 1950s and 1960s were the golden decades of motorsport. And I can’t argue with that because the said period is loaded with massive achievements in both Formula One and endurance racing. But when it comes to sports car racing, I think the 1980s stand out thanks to Group C prototypes.
Introduced in 1982, this category spawned a long list of iconic race cars, starting with the Porsche 956 and 962, the Jaguar XJR-9 and XJR-12, and the Mazda 787B. There’s also the Lancia LC2, the Nissan RC series, and the Peugeot 905 Evo.
But I’m here to discuss the Sauber C9, the Mercedes-Benz-powered Group C prototype that dominated the 1989 World Sportscar Championship. Introduced in 1987, the C9 was born five years after Sauber developed its first Group C vehicle, the SHS C6.
Powered by a Cosworth engine, the latter was replaced in 1983 with the C7, fitted with a BMW engine. Having failed to win races with both cars, Sauber took a sabbatical year and returned with the C8 in 1985. Although it retained many styling elements from the C7, the C8 welcomed a Mercedes-Benz engine under the hood.
Faster and more reliable than its predecessor, the C8 won the 1000km of Nurburgring in 1986. However, it failed to finish at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As a result, Sauber introduced the much-improved C9 for the 1987 season.
The new race car retained the C8’s monocoque and most aero features but gained a new suspension system and a redesigned rear wing. Sauber created two configurations: one for sprint circuits and a low-drag version for Le Mans.
The 5.0-liter V8 engine was based on the Mercedes-Benz M119, which the German company introduced on road-going cars starting in 1989. But unlike the mill fitted in some of Mercedes’ range-topping, high-performance vehicles, the race-spec lump featured a twin-turbo setup. Equipped with a pair of KKK turbos, the V8 generated 720 to 820 horsepower depending on boost.
The Sauber C9 was unsuccessful in its first year on the race track, failing to impress at Silverstone, Le Mans, and Nurburgring. However, the Mercedes-powered prototype returned with a vengeance in 1988, winning five of ten races with drivers like Jochen Mass and Jean-Louis Schlesser behind the wheel. These results gave Team Sauber Mercedes second place in the teams’ championship behind Silk Cut Jaguar.
But that wasn’t the end of the road for the C9. The race car had an even better season in 1989 when it won all but one race it entered, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Sauber took three vehicles to Circuit de la Sarthe, and they all finished the event. The winning C9, driven by Jochen Mass, Manuel Reuter, and Stanley Dickens, took the checkered flag five laps ahead of the second-placed C9. It was a resounding win for Sauber, which triumphed against a pack of Jaguar XJR-9s, Porsche 962s, and Mazda 767s.
The C9 was retired after the first race of the 1990 season and replaced by the Mercedes-Benz C11, which also won the World Sportscar Championship.
Come 2023, and the C9 is not the kind of race car you get to see every day. Only six cars were made, and they now reside in museums or private collections. However, people who attended the Kilometre Lance 2023 in Switzerland were lucky to see and hear this rare vehicle running down the Engadin Airport runway.